Pushed by increasingly tight supply and a booming export market to China, the plastics recycling sector is gearing up for an unusual lobbying effort.
The main trade group for bottle recyclers, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, is looking at a two-pronged approach: hiring a government relations firm to better make its case to public officials and appealing more directly to the plastic and beverage industries for help.
The problem is relatively simple. The amount of bottles collected from community recycling systems has stagnated for the past half decade, but the competition for that limited supply is getting more intense, mainly from Chinese firms that are gobbling up bottles to export back to Asia.
What APR has not figured out is what it wants to recommend to solve the problem, said Steve Navedo, vice chairman of the Arlington, Va.-based trade group and sales manager for Pure Tech Plastics, a PET recycler in East Farmingdale, N.Y.
The group needs to recommend specific solutions to avoid looking like it's merely complaining, he said. While APR debates what to do, he said there's a strong feeling that change is needed.
``If something doesn't happen to the collection rate, it's the domestic recycling infrastructure that will suffer most directly,'' he said. ``We're in the process of developing our message.''
The campaign would be a major change for APR, which mainly has been a technical organization.
One example of how APR views the problem: it may spend down its limited reserves on its lobbying campaign, said Robin Cotchan, staff director for APR.
``If it meant we would deplete our reserves to do that for a year, we might do that,'' she said. ``The members are pretty desperate for material.''
The lobbying effort will work with Washington, including Congress and federal agencies, and with state and local governments, she said.
The group's members took a vote at a Feb. 18 meeting in Albuquerque and endorsed a statement saying basically that ``our industry is in crisis and we need help,'' Cotchan said.
The numbers show the supply squeeze. The amount of PET collected for recycling in the United States has held steady for several years at about 800 million pounds. But exports, mainly to China, have risen sharply, from 90 million pounds in 1998 to 275 million pounds in 2002, the last year for which figures are available.
Cotchan said she does not know yet if the group's lobbying effort will address bottle bills, a controversial subject within the recycling industry.
APR did take the unusual step of hearing a presentation from the Container Recycling Institute, an advocate for bottle bills, at its meeting in New Mexico. APR officially takes a neutral position on deposits, even if some of its member companies privately like them because they produce both more and cleaner material than curbside systems.
But APR also gets significant financial support from the American Plastics Council, which opposes bottle bills, and some recyclers in the group buy bottle-bill material from soft drink companies, which also oppose deposits.
``Our wish list is for an industry-friendly national system that increases the collection of post-consumer bottles for recycling,'' Cotchan said.